May 21, 2008

The Rhode Island Solution

Rhode Island may be small, but when it comes to tackling the problem of undocumented workers, they think big. Last month, Governor Donald Carcieri issued an executive order encouraging law enforcement officials - from state police to local cops - to determine the immigration status of anyone taken into custody and take immediate steps to deport those who are here illegally. Rhode Island has basically concluded that the federal government is not going to enforce the law, so they will take on the burden themselves.

For the record, the scale of the undocumented worker problem in Rhode Island is relatively small: the governor estimates that there are between 20,000 and 40,000 such workers in the state. What is not clear from the executive order is just how proactive the governor wants law enforcement to be: it's one thing to check people's status after they become involved in the criminal justice system; it's quite another to go out looking for immigration violators. Do you check for citizenship after a motor vehicle citation? After a domestic disturbance? When you hear people speaking Spanish?

The Workers Comp Perspective
The RI Workers Compensation Court has its own view view of the rights of undocumented workers, one which appears to be in conflict with the Governor's. Chief Judge George Healy recently told community advocates: "Believe me when I tell you, we do not inquire about the employees' documentation. That is not an issue that the court concerns itself with."

Earlier this year we blogged the story of Edgar Valasquez, an undocumented worker who was seriously injured in an accident involving a chain saw. His employer dropped a dime on Edgar, who was arrested and deported while on his way to a workers comp hearing. Eventually, Valasquez was able to collect his benefits (he currently is back home in Mexico).

Despite the assurances of Judge Healy, there is no way for the workers comp system to ensure the rights of injured illegal workers. The latter can pursue statutory benefits, but they do so in the shadow of the governor's new enforcement effort. Judge Healy cannot prevent law enforcement from arresting comp claimants outside his courtroom.

The governor has taken an additional step to disenfranchise undocumented workers: he has proposed a bill that would explicitly exclude them from workers comp coverage. This is a draconian approach to an increasingly unstable situation. Undocumented workers are already operating in a twilight zone of unfair labor practices and unsafe working conditions. If they lose their access to workers comp, they will be at the mercy of their marginal employers. Once hurt, these workers would have no access to benefits of any kind. They would have to disappear and try to make their way back home. (Cynics may think this acceptable, but it is unfair and unAmerican.)

Donald Carcieri invokes the authority vested in him as governor of the "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." It appears that he takes the "plantation" part of his title seriously. He is creating a segment of the workforce with few more rights than slaves.

We all agree that there is a problem here that desparately needs fixing. Despite the continuing inability of the Congress to fashion a coherent legislative approach, this is no time for individual states to jerry-rig their own solutions. A little patience is required. In this key policy area, the "Ocean State" will soon be lost at sea.




"They would have to disappear and try to make their way back home. (Cynics may think this acceptable, but it is unfair and unAmerican.)"

So illegal immigration, identify theft, lying on job applications and theft of benefits paid by citizens for citizens IS American?

Slaves? Slaves who come here without coercion, free to take almost any job they can perform, negotiate their own wages and are free to leave at any time?

Some how your view or what is American is not mine.

Your take on the reality of slavery as it existed historically and currently exists in much of the world, does not match mine or any historical or current report on it I have ever seen.

As far as the States fixing the problem that you acknowledge exists I recommend a rereading of "The Constitution of the United States of America." Emphasis on STATES please.

"Article IV

Section 4. The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence."

Since the Federal Government has not lived up to the Constitution it falls to the States.

"Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

Enjoy your blog as always, please keep it up.


Charles Read

Excluding undocumented injured workers from the workers' comp system only provides further incentive for employers to bilk immigration laws and hire undocumented workers (which therefore provides a demand for this low cost labor and provides further incentive for them to come over here in the first place).

"What?!? You mean I can pay them less than minimum wage, force them to work overtime, and I won't be responsible when they're injured on the job? Sign me up!"


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This page contains a single entry by Jon Coppelman published on May 21, 2008 12:40 PM.

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